Archive | September 2016

Deja vu?

Try reading this book review and not be reminded of current events…

Tyranny of the Model

Ah, fall is in the air and so it is a perfect time to be grumpy.  Today it is about mistaking a model assumption for a model result, and our candidate for proving the point is the art of balancing cross sections.

Long ago, cross sections were drawn to, well, look like geologists thought they might look without too much worry about whether they made any sense.  That was of course silly, and over time some hardy souls wondered if you could take a cross section and treat it like a jigsaw puzzle, slicing it up on all the faults and unbending all the folds and then recovering something that looked reasonable for a starting model.  Formalizing such sections provided rules, such as the length of a bed had to stay constant as you undid deformation, or the area of a geologic unit had to be preserved.  While this allowed one to see if a section might be possible, it didn’t make for the easiest time in making a section that would work out.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, John Suppe developed a geometrical approximation for deformation in fold-and-thrust belts he termed fault-bend folding, a methodology that allowed for the construction of balanced cross sections from primary geologic observations directly rather than through some trial-and-error process. Since then, the approach has had numerous adjustments and extensions made to it, but it still is the basis for most geologic cross sections made today. As such, it was a major step forward.

So what is the problem? As with many useful tools, it is in the approximations necessary to make the tool easily wielded.

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Presidential Science

Pretty much lost in the noise and heat of this Presidential campaign has been the positions (if any) of the candidates on issues of significance to the scientific community. Fortunately, has at least solicited responses from the campaigns so you can get some idea on some issues of substance where these candidates stand.  (You can also read the Science summary of the results, though Gary Johnson’s responses apparently came in after Science’s press deadline).

Frankly, none of this will surprise anybody who has heard even a little of the campaign for the two major party candidates (well, except perhaps the Trump campaign’s statement here that “Science is science and facts are facts.” It isn’t clear that is the candidate’s position from many public statements he has made).  Those considering the Libertarian or Green party candidates might want to look at those positions, though.  Johnson, for instance, says that addressing global warming is best done by removing laws and treaties and allowing unfettered business to do what is right (um, yeah, so that is why the air got dirtier after the Clean Air Act was passed or water more tainted after the Clean Water Act and why nobody is having problems with pollution of their wells from oil and gas activities as those companies have been pretty close to being unfettered…NOT). Jill Stein, not too surprisingly, would shut down all nuclear and fossil fuel facilities as soon as possible. She would also ban GMOs, while Johnson would get out of managing any agricultural activities.

Arguably the most interesting topic to those research scientists concerned with the politicization of science are the answers to a question about how their administration would address issues of scientific integrity. Clinton suggests that fraud, while rare, should be “punished and prevented”–although noble sounding, one could wonder if this would be adding more inspection of funded research programs. She would also encourage more code, data, and model sharing (would this encouragement be in the form of additional requirements on NSF grants, say, or construction of some infrastructure, or … ?).  These are all hot button items in the scientific community, so it is nice to see that these are on her (or her campaign’s) radar. Trump simply assures that “there will be total transparency and accountability without political bias.” One does wonder what this means. Johnson seems to be saying that government funding of science is bad because “When government decides to fund A vs B, it has unavoidably put itself in the business of picking winners. That is dangerous.” (Guess those of us who have served on panels have been living more dangerously than we knew). This and platitudes about the First Amendment seem to be his view of scientific integrity (Note to Johnson: pick up a copy of Naomi Oreskes’s Merchants of Doubt and then answer the question: is it better to have government pick the winners, or private enterprise?). Stein takes this opportunity to simply slam corporate involvement in government agencies, saying nothing to the research community.

At least all this is more substantive than the latest health update, internet poll result or tweet coming from the news coverage.  So enjoy.

P.S.–Right after posting this, FiveThirtyEight had a discussion on Trump’s science/technology interests and goals and then followed that up with a discussion of Clinton’s science and technology program (a discussion of less interest to scientists, as it so developed).

Mapping failure,advanced edition

GG has complained a few times about poor maps in the professional literature, but a new entry has carried this to a new level. A new and intriguing paper by Alessandro Verdecchia and Sara Carena contains this figure:


This has the now-familiar “computer stupid” projection that GG complained about (and others have defended): 1 degree of longitude is shown as having the same length as one degree of latitude, a relationship only true at the equator. The scale shown is correct for north-south distances, but overestimates east-west distances by about 20% or so.  Strike 1.

What carries this to the next level is that important information here is the orientation of the faults. A Mercator projection will preserve angles (that is what it was always good for), but this projection will not.  A fault trending N45E, for instance, will be drawn here as trending about 52 degrees away from a north-south line. Strike 2.

The stereonets shown for focal mechanisms are not so distorted, so you cannot compare the orientation of nodal planes with the trends of faults as accurately as you should be able to. Strike 3.

Grr. As GG has said before, there is no excuse in the age of GMT and ArcInfo for stuff like this.  We can hope that the authors’ codes do not mirror their abuse of mapping software.

This again is the sort of mistake (and there is no defending this one!) that biases GG to question the ability of authors producing such maps. This is not what you want to do as an author!

[UPDATE: See Sara’s comment below; the statements above are too harsh as they presume ignorance or laziness rather than a choice made for other reasons.  GG continues to disagree with the choice, but now recognizes this was a choice.]

Hopefully we’ll get a chance to come back and explore the suggestion here that the data available allow us to refine earthquake forecasts in complexly deforming regions.

We’re number one! (Oops)

FiveThirtyEight has just run a piece on why college tuition has risen so much from 2000 to the present and takes on the question of how much administration and salary and amenity costs have eaten up and found that these are responsible for about a quarter of the rise in tuition.  The rest is because state contributions have dropped dramatically.  Then they list some results by state; they sort by the decrease in tuition support per students and guess who is number one? Yes, us folks in Colorado, having decreased the support to our college students by $7,800 per student.  Tuition has only gone up by $7700, so we have in fact cut back elsewhere to make up the difference [this is all the more impressive, having been here since 1993, in that we were already pretty low in state support prior to 2000].  We are also number one in terms of tuition cost (it is amazing we survive).

Notable about the list is the number of state universities that have done the same thing (kept tuition from rising as much or more than the decrease in state support–percentages above 100% in the righthand column of their table).

It would be nice if there was a bit more clarity in the numbers (the post credits the Department of Education for the tuition numbers and state contributions, but it would be nice to know what institutions are included and how they are weighted). But this might restore a little faith that public universities are trying to be careful with their budgets.

P.S.  There is something of a misleading statement in the piece: “Average salaries for full professors (the highest rank) at top public institutions exceed $160,000 annually.” Follow the link and dig and you’ll find that these are the average salaries at the 10 public institutions with, ahem, the highest salaries, five of which are UC schools. When GG read “top public institutions” he thought they might mean by some ranking of scholarship or academic success, not tops in paying professors, which is strongly influenced by the cost of living in the area of the university. None of these schools would break the top 10 average salaries for private universities. So you could look at this and say that the average salary of full professors at even the highest-paying public universities is far below that paid to full professors at equivalent private schools.

Inoculating against bias

Awhile back Dan Kahan of the Yale Law School came and spoke at CIRES here at CU about how opinions on a politicized topic like global warming tracks more with political identity and actually can harden with greater scientific literacy. It is a depressing feeling as most of us feel that the cure for people not agreeing with the science is to get them to understand the science; instead it seems that the ones best equipped to reconsider their opinion use those tools to justify their opinion rather than reconsider it.

So it is with something of a sigh of relief that some recent work by Kahan and colleagues points toward a crack in the facade of denying the science (thank you, BBC for noting this). Adding to their previous measure of scientific literacy, they created a measure of scientific curiosity. This in and of itself is rather innovative, but then they find that members of both liberal and conservative tribes are more open to considering evidence against their tribe’s opinion if they score higher on the curiosity scale.

Unfortunately this is a somewhat secondary effect.  While scientifically curious conservatives are nearly twice as likely to think global warming is mostly due to human carbon emissions, this is still only getting from 20% to 40% while political affiliation is a far stronger predictor of an opinion. Still, this points to the people on the opposite side of the political fence you have the best chance of convincing. In a sense, you are looking for people who like to have their world view challenged.

Of course Kahan et al. note that this is a pretty early part of this kind of research and so the results might change, but it is certainly intriguing. It suggests that if we worry more about encouraging students to look for stuff they don’t believe in, we might get a public more capable of absorbing new results from the scientific community.

Hyperbole Battle

One purpose of this blog is for GG to get grumpy things out of the way, and this is entirely a local topic most readers will want to bypass (though the New York Times has lately had a spate of Boulder articles, so maybe this is really national news). GG has the pleasure of a near front row seat featuring great bouts of hyperbole.  On one side sits NIMBY, on the other government overreach.  GG is not sure which is making him grumpier but wishes the whole thing would just go away.

The battle is over two undeveloped fields.  One was owned by the Catholic church in Boulder, the other the school district.  Both have remained open many years after the subdivisions around them were completed; both are within the county and do not touch the city. A few years ago (2006), the church considered selling their valuable downtown property and moving out here. At the time, noises started emerging within the neighborhood: this would bring too much traffic and noise and bother and affect the neighborhood (an actual quote: “This development will have a negative impact on property values due to the large increase of traffic, parking, car pollution, crowding and noise, not to mention the loss of scenic open space”).  Nascent NIMBY-ism was nipped in the bud when the congregation demanded the church stay in town; happiness was in the neighborhood, but GG’s feeling was, be careful what you wish for. A church could be lots better than something else….

Unbeknownst to the neighborhood, the church discussed with the county up zoning the land so the church could build senior housing.  The county pointed out that the land did not abut city land and so could not be up zoned to the density the church needed.  Instead, the church put the land on the market by early 2012, eventually selling the land to the county prior to early 2013.

It is about at this point where all the fun truly begins.

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